Rethinking How and Why Your Congregation Celebrates the Season
As a church leader, have you ever thought about skipping Christmas? There’s a quirky little John Grisham novel about just that in which the main characters decide to skip Christmas, much to the chagrin of their friends and neighbors. Their decision is based on the fact that their young adult daughter will not be home for the holidays, and her absence makes all of the mandatory seasonal decorating, party planning, and shopping feel like a burden instead of a joy.
While Grisham’s is a secular take on the issue, leaders in the church are often confronted with the same dilemma. Many congregation members begin ramping up for the holiday when the retailers do, attacking the stores on Black Friday (or earlier) like starving locusts and forgetting the original Christian intent of this preparation time before Christmas. Staff ideas for new Advent celebrations often wither and die over resource concerns. Where will the funding, participants, and, more importantly, the volunteers, come from what with all of the school holiday parties and performances, office and neighborhood gatherings and multiple marathon shopping outings, leaders ask. People are just too busy, they lament.
And in the blink of an eye, Advent is gone, just like Christmas wrapping paper, and the church is moving on toward Epiphany.
However, back in 2006, five pastors decided enough was enough. If they were going to help their churches think differently about this season, it was going to require a modern Christmas miracle. What evolved from their conversations was a rather radical philosophy they called Advent Conspiracy (AC). According to AC national director Ken Weigel, it is a way for people to wrestle with the question: “What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?”
When I interviewed Weigel for ‘Tis the Season: Church Celebrations for Advent and Christmas, he emphasized the fact that Advent Conspiracy wants to help people stop and think about why they do the things they do to “prepare” for Christmas and maybe considering doing that process differently. At the local level, Weigel hopes that congregations will encourage one another to focus on one or more of the four key values of Advent Conspiracy: worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.
How they do that will depend on the individual bodies, and it doesn’t necessarily mean adding new educational programs, worship services, or community life activities to the Advent calendar. It does, however, require good stewardship, not only of the Christmas message, which is ours to freely share, but also of our people resources as we reflect on how we do Christmas in the church.
Grounding all of this is Paul’s charge to believers in Romans 12:
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
Ready for a remix? Read on, considering these three key questions:
It’s all about the baby—or is it?
Does your congregation primarily focus on Mary and Joseph and the events surrounding the birth of Jesus?
Maybe it’s time to take a broader view of the Christmas story, engaging your members in God’s story from Creation to Revelation. Sometimes we get so caught up in the miracle of Jesus’ birth that we fail to make the connection for God’s people between the sweet little baby in the manger and the man whose mission was to seek and save the lost. If your Advent readings or sermons have fallen into a predictable, though much-loved, rut, maybe this is the year to awaken those sleepers in your congregation and rekindle their passion for God’s never-ending story that continues generation to generation. Equip your people to worship fully that their spirits might be renewed and refreshed to do God’s work in this world, not only in December but throughout the year.
It’s all about peace, love, and Santa—or is it?
Echoing unceasingly in our ears are the carols about peace on earth, good will to all people, and Santa’s jolly smile follows us everywhere during the Christmas season. It’s so easy to get caught up in the holiday spirit, yet sometimes that enthusiasm can mislead us. The truth is, not everyone loves the holidays. In fact, for some in your congregation, the focus on holiday hype may trigger or aggravate symptoms of depression. For others, the feel-good attitude promoted by the media, retailers and society at large can lull believers into forgetting the real truth behind Jesus’ call to love all. It’s not a short-term gig, it’s a radically transforming way of life that involves sacrifice and service. Maybe it’s time to help your congregation focus on a more enduring expression of loving all, like Jesus loves us, not just for a season, but for a lifetime.
It’s all about the presents—or is it?
Oftentimes, so much of our energy during the holidays gets consumed by shopping, including purchasing gifts we may not even want to give. How mixed up is that? Yet it’s hard to ignore our American culture which loudly proclaims the message that people deserve to get what they want for Christmas, regardless of the cost—spiritual, financial or emotional.
Buying stuff is not going to make you or Jesus happy. Furthermore, simplifying your life by spending less can make space for things like listening to God and giving God time to be at work in you. Give more, because when you let go of secular society’s Christmas wish list, your time, talent and financial treasures are freed up to be used for God. Don’t feel that you have to give up buying and giving gifts completely, but rather be more intentional in your Christmas giving and ask what does Jesus really want from you this year.
This wise stewardship should also guide church leadership. Staff need to be good stewards of their personal resources, as well as their church resources, including people. When rethinking Christmas for your congregation, be in prayer about the benefits and costs of adding worship, education, service, and fellowship opportunities. Will the new or different offerings allow people to better experience the presence of God or be more present in the lives of those who need to know Jesus? If yes, continue moving forward. If not, rethink some more.
God calls us, during Advent, to prepare our hearts and minds to remember the Christmas miracle of Jesus’ birth and re-energize our spirits to share that Word in the world in advance of his return. If your congregation has lost its “zeal for the Lord of hosts,” consider an Advent Conspiracy framework for rethinking how and why you celebrate this season with your congregation…and community. Be transformed for God so that you might transform this world in his name.
For more ideas, including worship services and mission projects, check out the sample chapter (downloadable below) titled “A Service Advent-ure” from the author’s book, ‘Tis the Season: Celebrations for Advent and Christmas.